No Future concludes with its strongest chapter, on Alfred Hitchcock's The Birds, the inhuman, and the queer. Aside from the author's decision to employ as many avian puns and clichés as possible in order to stress the bird in the human (after a few pages, the yuks about birds of a feather and cocks of the walk peck the feathered nest of the prose into corn), the chapter's strength is its focus upon the insufficiency of the category "human" to contain the vastness it is asked to tame. "Rather than expanding the reach of the human, as in Butler's claim for Antigone" Edelman writes, "we might ... insist on enlarging the inhuman instead" (152).
The chapter yields a quote that for me brings back the reasons the first chapter seemed so inadequate to its own grave pronouncements, namely:
"the fascism of the baby's face" ... subjects us to its sovereign authority as the figure of politics itself (of politics, that is, in its radical form as reproductive futurism), whatever the face a particular politics gives that baby to wear -- Aryan or multicultural, that of the thirty-thousand year Reich or of an ever-expanding horizon of democratic inclusivity. Which is not to say that the difference of those political programs makes no difference, but rather that both, as political programs, are programmed to reify difference and thus to secure, in the form of the future, the order of the same. (151)Ralph Nader made a related argument in 2000 about Republocrats: it doesn't matter which side you choose, it's all the same political system, whichever party you elect perpetuates the present state. I don't think I'm risking very much to say that in a democracy (even a democracy within a republic) it is riskier to believe that every choice is the same choice and opt out (even if it is the mild form of opting out that voting for Nader represented) than it is to trust in the possibility of an unpredetermined, non-replicative future. Is it controversial to say that George Bush as president has brought about a profoundly different world from the one that Al Gore would have fostered? Is it controversial to say that fascist regimes like Nazi Germany and democratic ones like contemporary Great Britain might use love of the child in propagandistic ways, but that they are not self-replicating regimes of the same order, and possibly not to be mashed into a single shared Symbolic?
And that's what I found most tiresome about this book: not the fact that the future gets suspended, but that the whole of the past and the present, everywhere and everytime, are rendered the same thing. A Hitchcock film from 1963 gives us a glimpse of the same Symbolic Order as homophobic remarks made a far Left mayor of Lourdes, France, in 2000 (a mayor who made the international news not so much for those remarks, but because he was ousted from his party for having made them, a fact Edelman does not mention). The Symbolic is monolithic and homogeneous and immune to history. Its existence is approached, like that of the Real and the Imaginary, with a religious awe. All three work as they do apparently for the reason that Jacques Lacan, their prophet, stated that they work thus -- a kind of Deism without an actual God.
And without compassion. Probably the worst chapter of the book is "Compassion's Compulsion." Edelman is not the first to demonstrate how mandating compassion is a kind of tyranny, how compassion can be thinly disguised aggression. See, e.g., Freud or Lacan. Or Carolyn Betensky, whose work on bourgeois compassion possesses a subtlety that this chapter does not. Once compassion is defined simply as "identification, love of one's neighbor as oneself," there isn't anywhere to go but to show how coercive compassion actually is. Then, like Martin Landau's character in North by Northwest, we become ethical in resisting compassion, in stepping on the foot of the person clinging to Mount Rushmore, in refusing to grasp the outstretched hand of the one about to tumble to a painful death. The future, writes Edelman, "can only belong to those who purport to feel for the other (with all the appropriate implications that such a "feeling for" suggests)" (75). And yet compassion does not mean only to feel for: like sympathy, compassion is literally feeling with, suffering alongside [for you Latinists: com- plus passio, with plus suffering]. Compassion, that is, need not be the realization of the violent desire to render my neighbor myself. It can be the acknowledgment that the suffering of my neighbor, the feeling of my neighbor, takes me apart, makes me feel in ways that are intersubjective. Compassion isn't necessarily identification, if that is the simple imposition of self upon other; it can be a kind of disaggregation. It does not compel us, I think, to refuse the hand that extends itself, whether that hand clings to a mountain or is extended by some waif so cute and fragile that our impulse is to smack him back to his hearth rather than carry him atop our shoulders.
I understand well the book's joy in raising its middle finger to the Annies and Tiny Tims and Whitney Houstons ("I believe the children are our future!") of the world. There is something deliciously wicked about the gesture. And fairly harmless, I fear, since these are figures so maudlin they don't amount to much more than kitsch ... unless kitsch itself is the lethal stuff of our quotidian reality. Perhaps wide eyed waifs really are Hitlers in miniature. Perhaps they really do tyrannize the queer, and are part of the same murderous Symbolic that did in Matthew Shepard ("And that cradle must endlessly rock, we've been told, even if the rhythm it rocks to beats out, with every blow of the beating delivered to Matthew Shepard's skull, a counterpoint to the melody's sacred hymn to the meaning of life" 116-17). But I find myself unconvinced that their power is so vast. It seems to me that the world is wider than that, more contradictory and fragmented.
In the end I also can't stop thinking about my children. Yes, in a way I mean Katherine and Alexander, Kid #2 and Kid #1 on this blog, little bearers of half my genetic futurity and constant reminders that no matter how much I wish to identify with them or replicate myself through them, they will perpetually engage in some version of raising their tiny middle fingers at me, rebuking whatever fantasy I might have had that the future could be more of the same. But I also mean the Green Children, those verdant intrusions from a neighboring world who taught twelfth century England that the ground it inhabited was an Elsewhere, that the history it pretended to culminate was an Elsewhen, that the present it hoped to extend infinitely into the future was in no way sure to arrive. With their call to a true compassion (a suffering-with rather than a transformative identification) these children, more than any death-drive allied sinthomosexual that Edelman imagines, are inhuman, are queer.